Police officers have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease due to low physical activity

Harold Mandel's picture
Police on their horses

We like to think of police officers as being unusually fit and in good health. However, this is not always the case. It appears too many high drama cop TV shows have a lot of us convinced the police are always on the move and are therefore not at a high risk for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, all of which are associated with sedentary lifestyles. However, research shows police officers are generally at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease due to low physical activity.

Police officers have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, and reductions in occupational physical activity may contribute to the risk, reported the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. In spite of this finding there have been few initiatives aimed at characterizing the physical demands of police work beyond self-reporting.

Researchers decided to compare measured physical activity between work and off-duty hours. Police officers from six departments wore a pattern recognition monitor for 96 hours which was used to measure total energy expenditure in kilocalorie per hour, activity intensity, and step count per hour. It was found that participants were more active on their off-duty days than when they were at work. It was concluded that police work is primarily a sedentary occupation, and police officers are generally more active on their off duty days than during their work hours.

This research has found that police work, like many other jobs, is primarily sedentary, reported The University of Iowa. The consequences of not being active enough at your job can be deadly. Researchers at the University of Iowa measured physical activity in police officers, whose jobs are presumably predicated upon movement. However, the group observed that police officers burn as much energy on the job as "someone sitting while holding a baby or washing dishes."


Sandra Ramey, assistant professor in the UI College of Nursing, said, “We find that police work is primarily sedentary.” Ramey has gone on to say, “The public view, how the media portray it on shows like ‘Hawaii Five-0,’ it’s just go, go, go – it’s an intense, high-activity profession. But it’s not. It’s more like bursts of energy, with long periods of little activity.” And so the public really is often being mislead about what the work of police officers really consists of by high drama cop shows on TV and movies.

Ramey says these findings are important, because workers in many occupations are increasingly employed in primarily sedentary settings. Ramey points out that the police are not alone, because most jobs these days are associated with using higher technology at the expense of physical activity
in the workplace. This means that other workers, like police, should increase movement while on the job. Far too often we move less in our jobs, and we don’t make up for that inaction in our off hours and days.

A study found in 2000 that four in 10 American employees worked in low physical activity occupations, which was double the percentage a half-century ago. The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion states that ominously, one quarter of U.S. adults also don’t exercise in their leisure time. The societal impacts of such inactivity are significant. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a lack of adequate physical activity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.

The finding that the physical demands of police work are generally comparable to sitting or standing was surprising. Higher ranking police officers were found to move less than rank-and-file officers. University police were observed to be more active, generally, than those in municipal departments. Ramey said, “The take-home message is police officers are in a sedentary profession, and we now have something beyond self-report that shows that.”

Ramey also noted that police work mimics many other present-day jobs. Workplaces in general should be encouraging employees to move around more during the workday. Suggestions have included having standing computer workstations and introducing regular computer prompts to alert workers to leave their desks and take some time to move around.

It has been my observation that police officers are not always as fit and healthy as we would like to believe they are. The finding that too much time not moving around predisposes police officers to cardiovascular disease, just like anyone else, should alert the police to find more time to stay active while at work, and to certainly also get more exercise in their time off. A consideration that many other workers share this same problem of too much physically inactive time at work should therefore encourage all workers to consider this advice.